Have you ever wondered which, if any, of our presidents have served in the U.S. Navy? We have, so in honor of President’s Day we dug around and discovered six presidents who once served in the Navy: President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, President Richard B. Nixon, President Gerald R. Ford, President James Earl Carter, Jr. and President George H.W. Bush. Here are a few of their more harrowing sea stories.
Before he was president, Lt. John F. Kennedy commanded PT 109 when it was cut in half by Japanese destroyer Amagiri during a night operation. The collision killed two American Sailors on impact and left 11 others stranded. The group swam for five hours to reach an island while Kennedy towed an injured comrade by clenching a strap from the man’s life vest in his teeth. They stayed there four days with no food or water before swimming to a different island. Again Kennedy towed his shipmate behind him. There they received assistance from natives who helped facilitate their rescue two days later. Amagiri never even realized they’d struck PT 109.
Before he entered the white house, Gerald R. Ford served aboard light aircraft carrier, USS Monterey (CVL 26), as the assistant navigator, athletic officer, and anti-aircraft battery officer. From fall 1943 through 1944 the ship participated in many Pacific operations and, among other things, helped secure the Makin Islands and support landings at Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Leyte and Mindoro. When a typhoon hit Adm. Halsey’s Third Fleet Dec. 18-19, 1944, Ford was nearly thrown overboard. As he made his way to his battle station on the bridge, the ship rolled 25 degrees causing him to fall and slide toward the edge of the deck. Luckily the steel ridge around the edge of the carrier slowed him down enough that he was able to twist and roll into the catwalk below saving his life. A fire broke out during the storm and the ship was so badly damaged it had to be sailed to Bremerton, Washington for repairs. More than 800 men and three destroyers were lost during the typhoon.
Long before he became president a young George H.W. Bush was inspired to join the Navy and become a fighter pilot after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. He had at least two close calls during his service. Once on the way back from a mission his engine died and he made a forced water landing at sea and was rescued by the destroyer USS Clarence K. Bronson. Another time as he began an attack on Japanese installations on Chi Chi Jima, his aircraft was hit by enemy shots and his engine caught fire. LTJG Bush managed to score multiple damaging bomb hits before flying several miles away from the island. Over the ocean one crewman exited but his parachute never opened and the other crewman never made it out of the plane. Bush exited the aircraft and his parachute opened. He waited four hours in an inflated raft while American aircraft flew watch overhead until he was rescued by the lifeguard submarine USS Finback. He stayed on board the ship for a month and participated in the rescue of other pilots.
One can only guess how many future presidents may currently be serving in the U.S. Navy and the sea stories they’ll someday share with the nation. In the meantime you can stay up to date on Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet ships and Sailors by checking out their website.